Shirlee Callender has enjoyed a life of many good things, and she has many more to look forward to. Callender, a mother of three, grandmother of six, and great grandmother of two, was born and raised in Des Moines, IA, and came to Minnesota in 1951 right after high school.
Things didn’t come easy at first in her new residence. “I had some unfortunate experiences when I first came [to Minnesota], trying to get a job,” recalled Callender. “It was segregated, of course. The job I went to [interview for] was Northern States Power (NSP), which doesn’t exist anymore.
“However, I had an ad in my hand, and I was an expert typist and shorthand person. I took a test and I passed with flying colors. It was a Monday morning and they had just opened, [but] they told me that they did not have any openings. I was very upset, of course. I cried and went to Urban League, but nothing happened. Later I became an employee for Honeywell Inc.”
She continued, “When my second child was born, I went to Honeywell [and] that is where I ended up retiring. I spent 31 years there. I started in the factory, because you made a little bit more money than when you worked in the office.
“Later, I became the first African American desk clerk. They used to call them ‘desk girls.’ These were the people that did the timecards and personnel work. Later on, Honeywell began to initiate a time when they wanted African Americans to come in as engineers and coordinators and people like that. So we had a large influx of people coming from out of town. They also wanted to incorporate women in some of these jobs.”
Eventually Callender became the first African American woman production coordinator at Honeywell. “I noticed an influx of women coming to Minneapolis over the years,” she said. She had friends who also worked at the Bell Company (Northwestern Bell Telephone Company). She remembers women not being able to wear slacks to work, and how women were hired in lower level jobs in the beginning. It got better as the years went by.
Callender, 83, always wanted to be an onstage actress, but felt discouraged because at the time she was told she was “African American, too short [or] too young.” However, at the age of 60 she made her dreams come true and became a professional model. “I took a 10-week course at John Casablanca [modeling agency] and graduated, which is no longer there.
“I have done close to 100 commercials, and I have done industrial videos and this type of thing. It has been a great blessing, as I have done a little acting, too.” In 2000, Callender was cast in a History Theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird as an understudy for the character Calpurnia. She also obtained her Associate Arts degree from Minneapolis Community & Technical College at age 50.
She has also been in three pageants. “Starting in 2007, I was the second African American to be a contestant in the Miss Minnesota Senior Pageant,” she said proudly. In 2010, she became the Senior Princess of the Minneapolis Aquatennial. She currently reigns as the Queen of the Northlands Senior Royalty for the St. Paul Winter Carnival, which carries an obligation of 75 appearances in a year.
As busy as Callender is, she still makes time to give back to the community. She served as secretary for the only African American AARP chapter in Minnesota for about eight years, and currently volunteers for the AARP office at the Mall of America once a month.
Additionally, she belongs to the senior dance line at Sabathani in South Minneapolis, and sings with the Aquatennial Senior Choir, which performs at nursing homes twice a month. “Out of everything I do, I enjoy [singing at nursing homes] more than anything, besides working at my church [St. Peter’s AME, where she has been a member since 1951]… I love giving back,” said Callender.
“I think that is one of the reasons I am still here today at my age and physically able to do the things that I do, because I am here to help. I am here to give service to other people.” She also credits her good health to being an avid walker and always staying physically active, in addition to yoga and aerobics.
With all of this on her plate, Callender confided that she is a cancer survivor who was able to avoid chemotherapy for a malignant tumor on her kidney. She had the tumor on her kidney removed and was out walking in 10 days post-surgery.
She humbly explained, “I want to give you my philosophy on life. I think of things that are good, positive, loving and true. I stay rooted in God’s Word… I encourage people young and old for each one to teach one. Meaning, share your experiences and this will impact the lives of others.”
She added that one of her joys in life is cooking for her family during the holidays. “I really appreciate it because they all have family and places to go, but they would never miss my mac and cheese and cornbread dressing on the holidays!”
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